A Word in Season: Reflections on Spirituality, Faith and Ethics
Matai House, $19.50,
The Anglican Church in New Zealand, like the other major denominations, is split between its liberals and conservatives. This division is over how to read and interpret scripture, who has the authority to do so and the issues of contemporary sexual morality, such as homosexuality. There is little dialogue between these two wings as they pass like ships in the night. The Anglican Church here inherited from its English parent a view of its mission – a sort of religious default position – as being to address the wider public as well as its own communicants.
Very much in this traditional Anglican mode and a leading liberal of the Church is Bishop Richard Randerson, one of the country’s most recognisable clerics. He is known for his career of principled interventions into our national life in the name of sanity, morality and justice. He took a public stand against the largely negative impact of New Right policies in the 1980s, has been a welcome, albeit irregular, columnist in the New Zealand Herald, and recently he unequivocally denounced the greed and immorality of those responsible for the global financial crisis. The Bishop caused a stir recently when he referred to himself as agnostic in relation to the possibility of scientifically proving God’s existence. This was reported in the press under the headline of “agnostic bishop”, whereas the truth is that he has been consistently cautious and modest in articulating what might be legitimately claimed of God.
This little volume, some 132 pages, contains 30 sermons, addresses and short pieces dating from 1999 until earlier this year. They are grouped under six headings that reflect the bishop’s agenda and abiding interests.
The five essays in the first section emphasise the need to ensure that we learn to broaden our collective and individual goals to include the spiritual and moral dimensions of our life and the lives of others. Taken together, they warn against subscribing to the dominant competitive, material and acquisitive values of our age in favour of an inspiring vision of life as a “vocation” of service to our community.
The Bishop’s understanding of the need for, and significance of, contemplative spirituality in our all too busy lives is revealed in the second section. Beginning with creation spirituality, explicated through St Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton, Matthew Fox, and Henri Nouwen, he goes on to explore the spiritual responses to despair, grief, suffering and pain and the possibilities of finding God’s presence here too.
The interpretation of the Bible in the contemporary world is the subject of the next grouping. He considers that taking Genesis as if it were science is a “category mistake” and that a non-literal reading of the text allows us to appreciate the focus on God’s care and our human responsibilities. Randerson characterises the widespread literal reading of Daniel and Revelation found in the Pentecostal eschatology of the eternally saved and damned as simply “appalling” and contrasts this with the optimism and certainty of the belief in God’s final triumph. These essays include illustrations based on careful and plausible readings of the biblical text. Randerson’s concerns range from exposing the limitations of Richard Dawkins’ religious “straw man” to discussion of Stead’s novel My Name Was Judas where he takes issue with Stead’s outright rejection of Jesus’ miracles even as encouraging and transformative “signs” for his followers.
Five sermons on Holy Week follow. Randerson offers his meditations on the potentially evil consequences of church complicity with power, on power and humility, reconciliation, the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection, and the dynamic nature of the experience of the Trinitarian God
The next four articles and addresses deal with faith and politics and have a New Zealand focus. Bishop Randerson gives his considered view that churches should not engage in parliamentary politics by supporting particular political parties. He then presents a spirited moral attack on Don Brash’s Orewa speech, claiming that the policies of the then leader of the National Party would set us back 50 years and threaten to destroy the hard-earned gains in the development of our bicultural awareness and putting right of the past. There are also positive reflections on New Zealand’s increasing religious diversity and the value of local, national and international inter-faith dialogue, and some of the possible components of a New Zealand spirituality.
The last three sermons look at the Anglican Church and the hardening battle-lines over sexual morality between the traditionalists and the liberals. The first deals with the reasons why the New Zealand bishops rejected changing the laws on prostitution and why Randerson supports gay and lesbian rights. The Church is supportive, he writes, of “bonding” relationships between people but opposed to the further “casualisation” of sexual activity in our society. The last piece asks whether the debate over the ordination of active homosexuals will split the Church and concludes that this is premature if there is a commitment to ongoing dialogue on these difficult issues.
None of the pieces are longer than three or four pages, and this brevity leads them to being more suggestive than sustained as arguments. Many of them also contain long lists of additional points to consider instead of analysis, and all have questions for further discussion. I would have liked from the Bishop, one of our leading and sophisticated moral voices, lengthier elaborations that allowed him to develop his thought and defend his conclusions. Curiously this publication has no dashes, just spaces for them but this does not seem to be too much of a barrier for the reader.
These essays portray a man who has walked his talk for decades, deeply committed to the truths of the Christian tradition and to his non-literal understanding of the transforming power of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. His is a coherent and inspired liberal faith conveyed as he tries through his writing to share his experience of the life-giving presence of God in our lives, particularly as manifest in social concern and action.
Paul Morris is Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.